Maciej Ceglowski and the First 100 Years

Maciej Ceglowski (founder of Pinboard and overall Polish hero) says “Brevity is for the weak” – and he certainly has no problem producing very long and probably rather unread screeds. But they’re worth reading I think. I read this over the weekend. And because I believe in the power of précis, I’ll save you the trouble of his unedited fire-hose to make a point about design. If I may.





Using the history of aviation as an example, Ceglowski shows how technology can start fast, but then slow down and even go backwards. He says this may be what’s happening now with digital technologies, citing that good old chestnut, Ye Ende of Moore’s Lawe, and wearable tech with its slow processors and teeny screens.

I’d say that while this is probably not something we’ve seen in the motor, printing, film/TV and most other industries, aviation is certainly a fun example to play with in relation to digital. They scrapped Concorde, after all, the killjoys.

The Designer’s Insight

While he makes the essential point that there is such as thing as “good enough” in many cases, he doesn’t offer what I think is the more interesting explanation, what I might call “the designer’s insight” – that pioneers often have different metrics of success than later adopters. There can be, and (in the case of aviation at least) often are other measures of success than features, quality or speed. Just because the founding mothers and fathers of a technology held those things to be be important doesn’t mean they will always be. The canonical example here being the telephone, envisaged at one point as a broadcast technology, amongst other things.Theatrophone

I’ve often found this phenomenon of “interpretation” in technology to be something that engineers find extremely difficult to accept. What? You’re not interested in a holographic screen if it means you can’t fit it into your handbag? It’s a marvel of engineering! The least you can do is get a bigger handbag! Oh, and if you find it hard to use, you’re obviously not trying hard enough.

So the fact that computing devices are slowing down and becoming less capable in return for things like cost or convenience, isn’t a surprise. One of the notable aspects of Apple’s success after Steve Jobs’s return was in taking the emphasis off hard specifications and into the area of emotion and aesthetics. If you’d suggested to anyone in 1985 that computers should look good, they’d have thought you were a pervert.

So it would be more surprising if technology bucked the trend of non-linear progression. Just as 99% of all animal species have died out, so I would expect the same of technology. But the designer’s insight is always worth remembering.

Modelling The Internet

Having constructed a rather wobbly thesis on technological progression in the first part of his talk, Ceglowski then takes an interesting turn. He classifies three schools of thought about the future of the Internet:

1. Network cultural (AKA what Clay Shirky writes about)

2. Techno-capitalist (everyone’s socio-economic existence being mediated by software. Post-capitalism and the blockchain, etc.)

3. A path to the Singularity (through what Vernor Vinge calls “Intelligence Amplification”)

He mocks the third one, and mocks those muppets Bill Gates and Elon Musk too. I like it that he does. And may well be right, if a little outnumbered at the moment . But given the non-linear progression he himself discusses, I’m not as confident as he is in thinking we won’t be able to get much past a worm’s brain any time soon.

But why the sudden classification of the Internet at all? The other two points (in fact all three) don’t seem to be mutually exclusive to me. True, some people emphasise different aspects of what the Internet might become, but he doesn’t demonstrate why it can’t also become all these things and more.

But then, just as it was getting all quite interesting… he disappears in a puff of smoke with a call to protect the network cultural model. “TUMULTUOUS, SUSTAINED APPLAUSE”. I like his sense of humour. He could have told people to donate to the EFF or something perhaps, but no matter. Sounds like it was a fun talk all the same.